CM 530: Educational Ministries
Anthony, Michael J: Introducing Christian Education: Foundations For The Twenty-First Century
Luther Rice Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment of
the Requirements for the Degree
Masters of Divinity
Justin Z. DuBose
5218 Happy Hollow Court
Lula, GA 30554
I.D.# GC6831 / Phone: (678) 707-1491
November 17, 2013
Professor: Dr. Kreutzer
Hours Completed: 60 -- Hours Remaining: 12
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SUNDAY SCHOOL VERSUS SMALL GROUPS
Presented to Dr. Bruce Kruetzer
Luther Rice Seminary
In Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Course
CM 530: EDUCATIONAL MINISTRIES
Justin Z. DuBose
II. THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SUNDAY SCHOOL
III. THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SMALL GROUPS
IV. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
Since 1780 in Gloucester, England, when Robert Raikes began Sunday school, it has remained a dominant force of Christian education in the church.  Even in churches that are considered to be “successful” from the standpoint of number of people in attendance on Sunday, Sunday school can still be a very strong presence. However, in many churches labeled as “progressive” or “contemporary”, the concept of Christian education in small groups has been and continues to gain momentum. So, the question is this: which of these two vehicles for Christian education are more effective for the twenty-first century church? While each church is unique, and there are many variables in each equation, this analysis will attempt to answer the question above in general terms for the twenty-first century American.
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SUNDAY SCHOOL
Sunday school was initially created “to provide literacy and spiritual training to children who were working in the factories” in England.  In the midst of the booming Industrial Revolution, Sunday was the only day off from work, and so these “Sunday schools” ran the course of a workday every Sunday. With the formation of the Sunday School Society in 1785 and the Sunday School Union in 1803, Sunday school has been a part of church life since this time. Sunday school gradually made its way to America, and by 1824 the American Sunday School Union was formed.  Sunday school was a formational part of the church of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but began to decline in the years following World War II. The decade of the 1970’s saw a sharp decline in the effectiveness of Sunday school. Research conducted by Richard Allison notes that “forty million persons were enrolled in Sunday school in 1970. In the next decade, enrollment dropped to 31.5 million. This is a twenty four per cent decadal decline. Over half of U.S. denominations reported church membership growth in the decade of the seventies. Only nine registered any growth in their Sunday school for the same period.” These numbers have only continued to fall. The Associated Baptist Press cited a survey conducted by LifeWay Christian Resources which reported in 2004 that only 8.4 million were participating in Sunday school, and by 2010 that number had fallen to just 7.6 million.  Compare that number to the forty million recorded in 1970, and you have, over the span of just forty years, a decline in participation of eighty-one percent. When you also consider that the population of the United States has increased by sixty-six percent in that same forty year span, it is not difficult to see the sharp decline in the effectiveness of Sunday school since 1970.
So, what has been the reason for this lack of effectiveness? Obviously, some evaluation is necessary. Allison makes the following statement: “Evaluation is asking the question, ‘Is God well served by what we are doing?’”  Perhaps another way to ask the same question is: Is there a better way that we could serve God in what we are doing? If the goal is Christian education, then perhaps there is a different vehicle to accomplish that same goal. After all, the initial reason for creating Sunday school is now obsolete – the lack of time for education due to factory work. This is is not a consideration in twenty-first century America. As Anthony phrases it, “Sunday school, with its ill-advised tendency to mimic “schooling”, the typical learning situation is called a “class”, and the “classroom” is presumed to be where the important learning occurs. If only Christian education were to build its teaching-learning models around biblical examples from the ministry of Jesus Christ and biblical teachings about the church as a community, effective learning would be much more likely to result.”  What then does this environment look like – one that builds its teachings about the church as a community of believers? Perhaps it would be portraying the church as more than a building? Perhaps it would be focused on relationships as places where learning occurs as opposed to the building? The effectiveness of Sunday school can be that it seeks to educate children and adults alike about God’s Word in age-appropriate environments, but its glaring weakness may be its focus on the church building. Let us now examine the effectiveness of small groups based on similar data, and then compare the two for effectiveness in the twenty-first century.
THE EFFECTIVENESS OF SMALL GROUPS
There is substantially less data on the effectiveness of small groups as opposed to Sunday school simply because there is much less history with small groups than with Sunday school. However, research exists which shows how twenty-first century adults and children learn best. It is this research that will provide the foundation for the effectiveness of small groups. In many articles and books, small groups are synonymous with “cell groups”, and thus many referenced articles will have such terminology embedded within them. To begin this discussion, Joel Beeke notes that “studies by educators such as Malcolm Knowles and Sharan B. Merriam have shown that many adults learn more from class discussions, cell groups, case studies, and personal interviews than they do from lectures.”  This research alone does not conclusively prove the effectiveness of small groups, however. It simply speaks to the environment in which twenty-first century adults learn most effectively. Other pastors, missionaries, and theologians see this model of small groups as most effective for the same reasons. They note not only the environment for learning, but also the biblical benefits of discipleship that take place there as well. “Advocates of house churches argue that small gatherings are more faithful to New Testament models by providing flexibility and accountability.”  Beyond this, however, Walters notes that these gatherings are “the local expression of the body of Christ whether they meet in a house, a park, or a conference hall.”  Notice again the focus on the relationships and not on the building in which the teaching takes place. Walters uses as a case study Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. He quotes Tim Keller, the pastor, as saying “nothing would compete with small groups as the main way we minister to individuals in the church.”  In a separate case study, Ken Canfield examined a small group focused of men who were seeking to be better fathers. This small group met weekly, in homes, with fathers and eventually with their children as well. After going into detail about data associated with fathers in the twenty-first century church, Canfield noted that “the small-group dynamic can mirror the work within the Body of Christ as a whole when it is fully functioning and engaged in equipping fathers.”  Additionally, Canfield notes that “facilitating a small group appears to be one of the most effective [forms of Christian education]. Why? As noted by other researchers, most social behavior occurs in groups. When fathers get together to compare and to discuss issues that arise related to their fathering, learning is enhanced.”  Notice again the focus on the learning environment and the positive effect this has on the proper functioning of the Body of Christ.
While more historical data exists on the effectiveness of Sunday school programs, for children and adults alike, there exists plenty of material on the environment created by small groups and the benefit this provides to learning. The question that everyone in the field of Christian education must ask themselves the question, “How can we best educate our people about who God is, how He works, and how we are to live?” There are many approaches to accomplishing this mission and Sunday school and small groups within the church have both seen success. However, when applying these to a specific church situation, which of these works most effectively? Let us first paint a specific scenario and then apply these principles.
The church that I pastor is located in rural North Carolina. The church has a Sunday school program that is fairly strong, in comparison to the national percentage of Sunday school attendance. There are no small groups to speak of. There is, however, a strong Wednesday night program for kids and youth in the form of AWANA and youth group. There is also a strong Christian school connected to the church. Overall, the children and youth ministry seem to be rather strong while the Christian education for the adults is lacking. The other issue connected with this is that some of the elders do not seem to understand, or even fit, the biblical role of an elder plays in the church. Now, let us apply these two methods of Christian education to this rural church situation.
The traditional method of Christian education has been in place in this church for decades. They have several Sunday school classes broken up by age, in some cases, and by sex in others. I have found that certain Sunday school classes are very strong and others are very weak. In general, the classes that are doing well typically include men and women who do not have children in the home. Those that do have children in the home are consistently in attendance when the parents are also involved in some church function on Sunday mornings before the main worship service. The reason for this, in my opinion, is because the education takes place at a fixed time and place – early Sunday morning in the church building. The question remains of whether a change in time or place would increase the effectiveness of education among this demographic. Conversely, Wednesday night attendance in the various functions of Christian education is very high among children and youth. However, the Wednesday night bible study and prayer for the adults consistently has low attendance. Many of the adults are involved in the educational programs for their children on Wednesday nights.
So, which of these two would be more effective in this situation? Firstly, if the elders of the church were spiritually leading and shepherding the congregation, specifically in the realm of education, they would either be teaching Sunday school or a particular small group. In our case, they often cannot teach Sunday school because they are carrying out some other function in the church. Another problem that we have discovered is that those who do not attend Sunday school are often unknown to those who do, because even after Sunday school is dismissed these groups typically stay together during the service. Would these observations be different if the church were to implement small groups as the primary form of carrying out the function of Christian education? I believe that they would.
If small groups could be implemented into the home there would be several benefits. Firstly, it would put the elders into a position to be teaching as well as shepherding their groups. It would provide direct access of the congregant to their elder and give them a forum in which they could more freely express their needs than in a highly structured Sunday school environment. This would help facilitate ministry at the lowest level before immediately bringing all needs and concerns to the desk of the pastor. In this case the elders are actually serving their biblical purpose. Secondly, it provides the easiest and most comfortable means of integration into the local church body. Visitors are much more likely to “visit the church” if they are initially coming to the homes of those whom they already know and trust, as opposed to immediately setting foot into a large group of complete strangers.
All of this discussion speaks to the difference in the learning environment created by small groups as opposed to Sunday school as discussed earlier. Why has the percentage of people participating in Sunday school dropped so drastically in recent decades? The reason, I believe, has everything to do with the learning environment. The problems that we have experienced in the disassociation of regular members and visitors have everything to do with the environment created by Sunday school. If a visitor finds their way into the lobby on Sunday morning, they have no idea as to the classes offered, where they are located, what the material is, and so forth. When they are invited into someone’s home, they are not stepping immediately into a classroom of strangers, but into the living room of their host. There is typically refreshments and introductions, all of which make the visitor more comfortable. They immediately meet an elder of the church, in their own home, and begin a relationship with them. When this is accomplished, integration becomes a very fluid and easy process.
The advantages are not for the visitor only, however. The congregants also benefit as well. In addition to the benefits created by being ministered to by their elder, they also have more accountability and vulnerability in small groups. The atmosphere in a Sunday school classroom with its curriculum and time crunch is not nearly as conducive to vulnerability as a small group which meets in the home. This speaks to the case study referenced above by Canfield in which fathers found a place of safety in meeting in small groups with other fathers.
In each case, a local congregation must evaluate their own needs and methodologies. However, as a general rule, for the twenty-first century congregant small groups seem to create an atmosphere in which people can be ministered to. The statistics of declining Sunday school numbers, in my opinion, have everything to do with the learning environment. Because there is more freedom of expression in small groups, and because of the teaching and shepherding role of church elders, and because of the importance of the integration of visitors into the body, I believe small groups are the better way for churches to accomplish the function of Christian education.
Allen, Bob. “Can Sunday School Be Saved?,” Associated Baptist Press, January 6, 2012, accessed November 16, 2013, http://www.abpnews.com/ministry/congregations/item/7049-can-sunday-school-be-saved#.Uoeac-Ilhws.
Anthony, Michael J., ed. Introducing Christian Education: Foundations for the Twenty-First Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Beeke, Joel R. “God-Centered Adult Education.” Puritan Reformed Journal 1, no. 1 (January 2009): 160-83.
Canfield, Ken. “The Modern Fatherhood Movement and Ministry to Fathers in the Faith Community.” Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 1, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 27-33.
Rausch, David A. “The Century of Evangelicalism.” Ashland Theological Journal 19 (1987): 72-82.
Walters, Jeff K. “Looking to a City: Current Themes in Urban Missions.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 53-60.
 Michael J. Anthony, ed., Introducing Christian Education: Foundations for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 23.
 Ibid, 23.
 David A. Rausch, “The Century of Evangelicalism”, Ashland Theological Journal 19 (1987): 75.
 Bob Allen, “Can Sunday School Be Saved?,” Associated Baptist Press, January 6, 2012, accessed November 16, 2013, http://www.abpnews.com/ministry/congregations/item/7049-can-sunday-school-be-saved#.Uoeac-Ilhws.
 Allison, 49.
 Anthony, 120-121.
 Joel R. Beeke, “God-Centered Adult Education”, Puritan Reformed Journal 1, no. 1 (January 2009): 166.
 Jeff K. Walters, “Looking to a City: Current Themes in Urban Missions”, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 60.
 Ibid, 61.
 Ibid, 61.
 Ken Canfield, “The Modern Fatherhood Movement and Ministry to Fathers in the Faith Community”, Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 1, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 32.
 Ibid, 32.
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